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War games must yield honest results, or we risk wartime mistakes

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This month the great and good of the U.S. military converged on Newport, R.I., there to put ideas about high-seas warfare to the test. Held at the Naval War College, the classified “Global 14” war game explored a scenario set in the Pacific theater, presumably with China cast as the hypothetical foe. Its chief goal: to test whether the Pentagon is procuring the proper mix of naval, air and ground forces to prevail in oceanic and near-shore combat, and whether senior commanders have devised the proper methods for putting those forces to work for operational and strategic gain.

Afterward, service chieftains remained closemouthed about Global 14, divulging few details about how things went. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro did strike an upbeat note, expressing confidence that America is prepared to succeed in an increasingly contested Pacific.

Hope he’s right. 

Reportedly, officialdom will spend the coming weeks and months studying how the game unfurled, deriving actionable findings and recommendations for the Pentagon and Congress. A few pointers as they do: Above all, they should ask whether the game was held under sound assumptions about the operational environment, U.S. and friendly forces, and the prospective enemy. They must be forthright. Any system of reasoning proceeds from axioms deemed self-evident. Such precepts can be neither proved nor disproved within the system. Trouble is, people being the imperfect beings that we are, it’s far from uncommon to elevate ideas that can be proved or disproved within the system to the lofty status of assumptions.

Faulty assumptions portend lackluster results. In July 1965, for instance, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued a memorandum that pronounced a battalion of South Vietnamese troops equal to an insurgent Viet Cong battalion. In fact it was inferior. McNamara also proclaimed that a U.S. Army or Marine battalion was worth two or three VC battalions. And he assumed a conventional war awaited in Indochina. If communist forces came out in the open to fight traditional battles, rather than scurrying around the backcountry, Washington and Saigon could get away with a lower ratio of friendly to enemy forces than they would need to fight furtive insurgents. In short, McNamara fudged. Over the next decade, the allies put prevailing assumptions to the stern test of reality — and saw them debunked with extreme prejudice.

Garbage in, garbage out. 

Nor was Vietnam a one-off. In 2002 the U.S. Joint Forces Command convened a multi-service war game dubbed Millennium Challenge, hoping to vindicate the Pentagon’s concept for networked amphibious combat. Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper orchestrated operations for the “red team,” or simulated hostile force. Game organizers assigned him the resources available to Iran or Iraq, a Persian Gulf country resisting U.S. invasion from the sea. They pitted the red team against the “blue team,” a joint force including a U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier task force plying the Gulf. Van Riper proved a wily adversary. After the blue team disabled his electronic communications, for example, he issued orders through old-school methods such as motorcycle messengers and flashing-light signals from mosque towers. That’s creative use of sparse resources. 

And rather than await assault from the sea, Van Riper ordered a preemptive strike on the U.S. force. A volley of cruise missiles blazed forth from shore batteries, commercial ships and low-flying fighter aircraft. At the same time, explosives-laden speedboats swarmed the American fleet, carrying out kamikaze attacks. The red-team blitz sank 19 U.S. Navy ships, including the carrier. Exclaimed the blue-team commander: The red team “sunk my damn navy.”

The results of the Millennium Challenge were perplexing enough. Far worse was when game overseers yielded to their worst instincts. They reset the game, which made sense. A great benefit of war-gaming is that a game can be rerun quickly to run new experiments. But the Millennium Challenge organizers changed the rules to the red team’s detriment. They forbade Van Riper to shoot down U.S. transport aircraft, a key element of any amphibious assault and an obvious target for defenders. They compelled the red team to station its anti-aircraft weaponry in the open, where the blue team could find and destroy it, rather than conceal it as any competent opponent would. They denied the red team permission to use chemical weapons, then an important part of Iranian and Iraqi armories.

In other words, they modified the assumptions under which the game was played, reducing the red team to a dopey, inert, compliant foe. They ratified their concept of war — but only by scripting out the exercise to reach a predetermined result. China is a far more formidable potential antagonist than Iran. One hopes the game designers and administrators for Global 14 avoided the bureaucratic and intellectual pitfalls of the Millennium Challenge, and that analysts studying the game’s conduct make it a point to distill honest results from it, rather than results meant to please their military and political superiors. 

Millennium Challenge 2002 should have shattered an established “paradigm,” or theory about how to use maritime forces to subdue a coastal opponent. But as the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn warned half a century ago, “paradigm shifts” come hard. People become vested in the orthodoxy for career, prestige or pecuniary reasons. They act as gatekeepers for the paradigm, explaining away its failings until “anomalies” between the paradigm and observed reality are too glaring to ignore. Then the paradigm shatters, giving way to something better.

Scientific researchers have it easy. They conduct field research, testing their hypotheses against reality, revising them afterward, and running future rounds of experiments. Failure may not be desirable; it is expected. 

Orderly experimentation is a luxury. Fighting forces have no such luxury. After all, a combatant might get only one “field trial.” Battle, that is. That’s why Pentagon analysts must exercise the utmost candor while appraising Global 14. Better to demolish a false paradigm in peacetime, if necessary, when costs and dangers are minimal. Defeat and disaster could result if service leaders delude themselves in peacetime, only to have wartime expose their bad ideas.

The Pentagon might not have the time or resources to recover from a failed experiment. Let’s get things right now.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Tags China The Pentagon United States Navy

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